The Book of Longings: A Novel (6 page)

” I repeated, feeling how thick the word was on my tongue. “What is it?”

“It’s a community of Jews. Philosophers, mostly. Like me, like you, they come from educated and affluent families with servants to chew their food and haul their dung, yet they gave up their comforts to live in little stone houses on an isolated hillside near Alexandria.”

“But why? What do they do there?”

“They contemplate God with a fervor you can scarcely imagine. They pray and fast and sing and dance. I found it to be too much fervor for me. They do practical work, too, like growing food, hauling water, sewing garments and such, but their real work is to study and write.”

Study and write.
The thought filled me with wonder and stirring. How could there be such a place? “And are there women among them?”

“I was there, wasn’t I? As many women dwell there as men and they bear the same zeal and purpose. They’re even led by a woman, Skepsis, and there’s a great reverence for God’s female spirit. We prayed to her by her Greek name, Sophia.”

The name shimmered in my head. Why had I never prayed to her?

Yaltha grew quiet, so quiet I feared she’d lost the desire to go on. Turning, I saw our shadows against the wall, the bent stick of Yaltha’s spine, the waves and tangles of my hair spewing like a fountain. I could barely sit still. I wanted her to tell me everything about the women who lived in stone houses on the side of a hill, about the things they studied and wrote.

As I gazed at her now, she seemed different to me.
She’d lived among them.

Finally she spoke. “I spent eight years with the Therapeutae, and tried
to embrace their life—they were caring; they didn’t judge me. They saved me, but in the end I was not suited to their life.”

“And you wrote and studied?”

“My job was to tend the herbs and vegetables, but yes, I spent many hours in the library. Mind you, it’s nothing like the great library in Alexandria—it’s a donkey shed by comparison—but there are treasures in it.”

“Like what?”

I was bouncing a little on the bed. She patted my leg. “All right, all right. There’s a copy of Plato’s
there. In it he wrote that his old mentor Socrates was taught philosophy by a woman. Her name was Diotima.”

Seeing my eyes grow wide, she said, “And, there’s a badly stained copy of
written by a female named Aspasia. She was the teacher of Pericles.”

“I’ve heard of neither of them,” I said, pierced to think of my ignorance and awed that such women existed.

“Oh, but the real treasure is a copy of a hymn, the ‘Exaltation of Inanna.’ It came to us from Sumeria.”

This I’d heard of—not the hymn, but Inanna the Goddess, queen of heaven, and Yahweh’s adversary. Some Jewish women secretly made sacrificial cakes for her. “Did you read the ‘Exaltation’?” I asked.

“‘Lady of all the divine powers, resplendent light, righteous woman clothed in radiance, mistress of heaven . . . ’”

“You can recite it?”

“Only a small part. It, too, was written by a woman, a priestess. I know because two millennia ago she signed her name to it—Enheduanna. We women revered her for her boldness.”

Why had I never signed my name to what I wrote? “I don’t know why you would leave such a place as that,” I said. “If I should be so fortunate as to be banished to the Therapeutae, you couldn’t pry me from it.”

“It has its goodness, but also its hardships. One’s life is not entirely one’s own, but is ruled by the community. Obedience is required. And there’s a great deal of fasting.”

“Did you run away? How did you come to be here?”

“Now, where would I have run to? I’m here with you because Skepsis did not cease in pleading my case to Haran. He’s a cruel man and a belligerent ass, but eventually he petitioned the council to let me leave the Therapeutae on the condition I also left Alexandria. They sent me here to your father, who is the youngest of us and had no choice but to obey his brother.”

“Does Father know of these things?”

“Yes, as does your mother, whose first thought upon rising each morning is that I am a thorn in her right side.”

“And I am the thorn in her left,” I said with some pride.

We were startled by a noise, a scrape of furniture beyond the door, and we drew up in silence and waited, rewarded at last by Shipra settling back into her voluminous snores.

“Listen to me,” Yaltha said, and I knew she was about to divulge the true reason she’d dosed Shipra’s drink and come to me in the middle of the night. I wanted to tell her about my vision, how it’d visited my dream—
Ana, who shines—
and hear her affirm the meaning I’d given to it, but that would have to wait.

“I’ve been meddling,” Yaltha said. “I took it as my task to listen at your parents’ door. Tomorrow morning they will come to your room and remove the scrolls and inks from your chest. Whatever it contains will be taken and—”

“Burned,” I said.


I wasn’t surprised, but I felt the crush of it. I forced myself to look over at the chest of cedar in the corner. Inside were my narratives of the matriarchs, of the women and girls of Alexandria, of Aseneth—this my
small collection of lost stories. It also contained my commentaries on the Scriptures, treatises of philosophy, psalms, Greek lessons. The inks I’d mixed. My carefully honed pens. My palette and writing board. They would make ash of all of it.

“If we are to thwart this, we must make haste,” said Yaltha. “You must remove the most cherished items from the chest and I will hide them in my room until we can find a better place for safekeeping.”

I sprang up, Yaltha trailing behind me with the lamp. I knelt over the chest, the slick of light coming to rest above my head, and lifted out armfuls of scrolls. They clattered across the floor.

“Sadly, you cannot remove
of them,” Yaltha said. “It would raise suspicion. Your parents expect to find the chest full. If it’s not, they will turn the house over, searching.” She produced two goatskin pouches from the girdle inside her robe. “Take only the number of scrolls that will fit inside these skins.” Her gaze bore down.

“I suppose I must leave behind my palette and writing board and most of my inks?”

She kissed my forehead. “

I selected my corpus of lost stories, leaving the rest behind. I arranged them in the pouches, which still carried the faint stink of an animal pen, wedging the thirteen scrolls into tight honeycombs inside the bags. Into the last one, I managed to slip two vials of ink, two reed pens, and three sheets of clean papyrus. I wrapped the goatskins in a faded purple robe and tied it with a leather thong. I placed the bundle into Yaltha’s arms.

“Wait,” I said. “Take my incantation bowl, too. I fear they will find it here.” Leaving the red thread in place, I quickly redraped the bowl in flax and added it to the bundle.

Yaltha said, “I’ll hide it in my room, but it may not be safe there very long either.”

As I’d stuffed my writings into the goatskins, an idea had formed in
my mind, one designed to gain me freedom from my room. I tried now to put it into words. “Tomorrow when my parents come, I will behave like a repentant daughter. I will confess I’ve been disobedient and stubborn. I will plead for forgiveness. I will be like one of those professional mourners who pretend grief and wail at the graves of strangers.”

She studied me a moment. “Take care you don’t weep too much. A river of tears will make them wary. A trickle will be believed.”

I opened the door to be sure Shipra was still asleep and watched Yaltha creep past her with my precious belongings. My aunt had made her freedom. I would make mine.


They came late in the morning. They came bearing smugness, stern faces, and a betrothal contract freshly inked. I met them with smudges of twilight beneath my eyes and acts of guile and obsequiousness. I kissed my father’s hand. I embraced my mother. I begged them to pardon my defiance, pleading shock and immaturity. I cast down my eyes, willing tears—
please come
—but I was dry as the desert. Only Satan knows how hard I tried to squeeze them out. I pictured every grief I could think of. Yaltha beaten, battered, and sent away. Nathaniel spreading my legs. A life without inks and pens. The scrolls in the chest becoming a conflagration in the courtyard. And nothing, not a drop. What a failure I should be as a professional mourner.

My father lifted the contract and read it to me.

I, Nathaniel ben Hananiah of Sepphoris, betroth Ana, daughter of Matthias ben Philip Levias of Alexandria, on the 3rd day of Tishri and cause us to enter an inchoate marriage according to Rabbinic law.

I shall pay to her father 2,000 denarii and 200 talents of split dates from the first fruits of my orchard. I pledge to feed, clothe, and shelter her along with her aunt. In exchange, her guardianship shall pass into my hand on the day she is transferred to my house, where she will perform all the duties of wifehood.

This contract cannot be broken except by death or by divorce for Ana’s blindness, lameness, afflictions of skin, infertility, lack of modesty, disobedience, or other repulsions or displeasures so deemed by myself.

She shall enter my house four months hence on the 3rd of Shebat.

He held the contract out before me so I could witness the words myself. They were followed by Nathaniel’s signature in large brutish letters, as if slashed onto the parchment. Then my father’s name in bold imperial slants. Last, Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai, my father’s instrument, his signature so small and cramped I could glimpse the shame of his collusion.

“We are waiting to hear you acknowledge your consent,” Mother said, cocking her eyebrow, the crook of a warning.

I lowered my eyes. Clasped my hands to my breast. A small tremble of my chin. There. I was the compliant and docile daughter. “I give it,” I said. Then, wondering if they might be inclined to change their minds about the contents of my writing chest, added, “With all my heart.”

They did not change their minds. Shipra arrived with one of the soldiers who’d escorted us to the market. Mother went to my writing chest and threw back the lid. Her head vacillated back and forth as she took in the contents. “For all the time you spent writing, I should think you would have more to show for it.”

I felt a twinge of trepidation on the back of my neck.

“You will not partake in any more of this nonsense,” Mother said. “You are betrothed now. We expect you to put all of
out of your mind.” She dropped the lid. A resounding thud.

Father ordered the soldier to remove the chest to the courtyard. I watched as he hefted it onto his shoulder. Once again I tried to summon tears from the dust clefts in my eyelids, but my relief at having salvaged my most ardent work was too great. Mother watched me, lifting her brow once more, this time in curiosity. She was not easily fooled, my mother.

After Yaltha had left me the night before, I’d spent the wan hours thinking of where to hide the purple bundle—my scrolls were at risk here in the house under Mother’s nose. I’d pictured the caves on the hillsides that surrounded the valley, the places I’d explored with Judas as a girl. For centuries, those caves had been burying places not just for people, but for family valuables and forbidden texts. In order to hide my scrolls in one, though, I would have to secure Father’s permission to walk among the hills. It was an unusual request.

Beyond the window, the smell of fire and cinder erupted in the courtyard. They came then, tears gurgling up like a springhead. I went and stood before my father. “I am but a girl, but I’ve wanted to be like you, a great scribe. I wanted you to look on me with pride. I know now I must accept my lot. I’ve disappointed you and that is worse to me than a marriage I do not want. I will go willingly to Nathaniel. I beg for only one thing.” The tears flowed and I didn’t wipe them away. “Allow me to walk outside in the hills. I will take my comfort there and pray to be delivered from my old ways. Lavi can accompany me to keep me safe.”

I waited. Mother tried to speak, but he waved his hand for silence.

“You’re a good daughter, Ana. Walk in the hills with my blessing. But only in the mornings, never on the Sabbath, and always in the company of Lavi.”

“Thank you, Father. Thank you.”

I couldn’t hide my relief and exuberance. As they left, I refused to meet my mother’s gaze.


The following morning I waited for Lavi in my room. I’d instructed him to pack goat cheese, almonds, and diluted wine so we could take our breakfast along the way, impressing upon him the importance of leaving early. One hour past sunrise, I’d told him. One hour.

He was late.

Since Father had confined my excursions to the mornings, I meant to make the most of them. I’d risen in the dark and dressed hurriedly, a plain coat. No ribbon in my braid or anklet at my foot.

I paced. What kept him? Finally, I went in search of him. His room was empty. No sign of him in the upper courtyard. I’d come halfway down the steps into the lower courtyard when I saw him on his knees scraping soot and cinder from the oven, his dark face white with ash. “What are you doing?” I cried, unable to keep the exasperation from my voice. “I’ve been waiting for you—we should have left already!”

He didn’t answer, but tensed his eyes and looked toward the doorway beneath the stairs that led to the storeroom. I descended the remaining steps slowly, knowing whom I would find there. Mother smiled with satisfaction. “Your plans will have to be postponed, I’m afraid. I discovered the oven was hazardous with grime.”

“And it couldn’t wait until the afternoon?”

“Certainly not,” she said. “Besides, I’ve arranged for you to have a visitor this morning.”

Not Nathaniel. Please, God. Not Nathaniel.

“You remember Tabitha?”

Not her either.

“Why would you invite her? I’ve not laid eyes on her in two years.”

“She has only recently been betrothed. You have much in common.”

The daughter of one of my father’s underling scribes, Tabitha had made a handful of visits to our house when we were both twelve, those, too, at my mother’s instigation. She was female and Jewish, and that was the extent of our similarities. She didn’t read or write or care to learn. She liked to steal into my mother’s room and rummage among her powders and perfumes. She performed playful dances, pretending to be Eve, sometimes Adam, and once, the serpent. She oiled and braided my hair while singing songs. Occasionally she speculated aloud on the mysteries of the marriage bed. I found all of these things profoundly boring except her musings on the marriage bed, which were not boring in the least.

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